I've been digging deeper into the world of Jewish blogs (it's easy - they all link to each other), and found this blog by a female ritual scribe, or soferet. I especially recommend the posts on "Tonight's Vision Television" and "Delight," where she discusses the tangle of Judaic law regarding the problem of the female scribe.
The soferet is at the heart of the problem confronting Modern Orthodoxy: what is the role of the woman? Judaism is a patriarchal religion, and is rather unabashedly so, and with the slant towards male primacy has come the inevitable reduction of the female as having intellectual value. This has changed dramatically in recent years - when I went to grade school, girls were taught different classes in religious law than the boys, who had a more technical, in-depth study than we double Xers did. Now, institutions such as Drisha and Ma'ayan place value on women's learning, and raise the debate as to women's role as Judaic legal authorities (not to be confused with rabbis). Their aftr-the-fact approach is being followed by a trend in modern Orthodox schools to educate the boys and the girls in the same way, on the same subjects, and even not to separate the genders for the religious studies half of the curriculum.
Which then creates a problem: what is a learned woman, whose education in Judaic law and practice matches that of a rabbi? In Conservative, Reform Reconstructionist Judaism, this woman is the rabbi. In Orthodox Judaism, well, she's a question mark - even a problem. M.O.W. has an interesting take on this, arguing that if we are going to encourage young women to have the same freedom as the men to follow their noses into the study of Judaic law, then we should compensate them accordingly, offer them role models. Otherwise we risk losing them as the hypocrisy of the current situation is revealed: women can learn as a hobby, as a personal passion, but are unlikely to be paid for it. But if there was a job for this educated woman scholar, it would be as what? Non-rabbi? Rabbinic legal consultant? The RenReb would be apopleptic if her complex, unpaid role included that of a halachic (Judaic law) consultant - as if she didn't have enough to do. And she does - and it does, alas.
For an ancient culture/religion (for the two are indeed intertwined here), moving into new space like this is unsettling. Kudos to JOFA for handling it as they do, and so making this almost a matter for academic-cum-practical debatem rather than panicked/scornful shrieking. Yup, props to those who are handling this debate gracefully. But what do I think? I think the yoetzets are right: there is a lot of space in the role of rabbi-as-halachik-adviser. Some issues, such as the color of the fluid on my undies, I'd rather not discuss with a rabbi, and community-encouraged modesty would, more likely than not, land my poor partner with the job. To discuss the issue with a woman would be infinitely better. There are many aspects of a rabbinic job, officially or otherwise that could benefit from being shared, particularly with someone whose gender may (I said, may) offer them a different, complementary perspective. But should women be rabbis in an Orthodox coimmunity? That's a blog for another day...